Articles

Following is a sampling of some classic essays and shorter articles written by David Berlinski. A printed collection of essays is available in The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (DI Press, 2009).

Evolution.News

Majestic Ascent: Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial

Editor’s note: Phillip E. Johnson, Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial and other books, died on November 2. Evolution News is sharing remembrances from Fellows of Discovery Institute. Dr. Berlinski’s essay is drawn from his new book, out on November 11, Human Nature, currently available for pre-ordering. Richard Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker in 1986.1 The appearance of design in nature, Dawkins argued, is an illusion. Complex biological structures may be entirely explained by random variations and natural selection. Why biology should be quite so vested in illusions, Dawkins did not say. The Blind Watchmaker captured the public’s imagination, but in securing the public’s allegiance, very little was left to chance. Those critics who believed

Letter from Paris: The Bells Are Silent

I have lived within half a city block of Notre Dame for the last twenty years. I saw the spire from my bedroom window every morning, and at noon, or in the evening, on leaving my apartment, I could touch the cathedral walls. I always directed taxi drivers to head for Notre Dame, and even if they had never heard of rue Chanoinesse — my street — they knew how to get there.  My father played on the cathedral’s organ, and after his concert, when the cathedral was deserted, he played Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for my wife and me, the sound booming. In winter, when there were few tourists, I would go into the cathedral and light a candle for M.-P. Schützenberger. He had wished to return as one of the gargoyles, and, perhaps, he had. No building has ever been more a

A One-Man Clade

The problems associated with the biological character problem are so complex and multifaceted and this issue is so conceptually immature that any single author's account is doomed to be too narrow and lopsided to be of much use. -- G�nter Wagner1 Had Stephen Meyer better appreciated the tools of modern cladistics, Nick Matzke believes, he would not have drawn the conclusions that he did in his book Darwin's Doubt, or argued as he had. Meyer is in this regard hardly alone. It would seem that Stephen Jay Gould was just slightly too thick to have appreciated, and the eminent paleontologist James Valentine just slightly too old to have acquired, the methods that Matzke, writing at Panda's Thumb, is disposed to champion. Should Valentine be appointed to Matzke's dissertation

A Graduate Student Writes

Editor's Note: Since Darwin’s Doubt was published on June 18 more than 65 reviews have been posted on Amazon. In addition, Panda's Thumb, a blog dedicated to the defense of evolutionary theory, published a lengthy critique by Nick Matzke on June 19. On July 3, The New Yorker followed with a review that drew heavily on Matzke’s post. We are delighted that the book has already provoked such a spirited response. With this reply to just some of the questions that Nick Matzke raised in his review, we continue, and will continue, to use ENV as a platform for discussing the issues raised in critical (and other) reviews of the the book. Look for thoughtful and vigorous responses to other critiques of Darwin's Doubt at ENV in the future. David Berlinski, mathematician and

The Ineffable Higgs

Surely its discovery meant something? The Standard Model (SM) of particle physics demanded its existence, after all; and the demand was met. If it took forty years and more than $16 billion to discover the thing, physicists could with satisfaction observe that the public got what it paid for, the first step, of course, in demanding that the public pay for more of what it got. Photographs of Peter Higgs staring tenderly into space, ses yeux perdus, conveyed an impression of appropriate intellectual satisfaction. The discovery was announced; the story reported; and then there was silence. Physicists endeavoured, of course, to maintain the impression that they had discovered something of inestimable value. They were game. Writing in The Daily Beast, Sean Carroll predicted that the Higgs

A Flower of Chivalry: Berlinski on Hitchens, 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens's friends loved him without reservation, and at his death, they have praised him without restraint. I knew Hitchens only slightly. We had met over the course of four days in Birmingham, Alabama, where we participated in a debate. Hitchens was already gravely ill. I do not think he was yet in pain, but plainly he was suffering from the effects of chemotherapy. He walked slowly, and when he spoke in his rich plumy baritone, he spoke from a place far away. The debate between us was far less a debate than a celebration of his determination again to appear in public. Before the debate, Hitchens found himself surrounded by well-known figures from New York and Washington, D.C. He enjoyed their attention, and if he had on this occasion earned it by approaching the

Majestic Ascent: Berlinski on Darwin on Trial

Richard Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker in 1985. The appearance of design in nature, Dawkins argued, is an illusion. Complex biological structures may be entirely explained by random variations and natural selection. Why biology should be quite so vested in illusions, Dawkins did not say. The Blind Watchmaker captured the public's imagination, but in securing the public's allegiance, very little was left to chance. Those critics who believed that living systems appear designed because they are designed underwent preemptive attack in the New York Times. "Such are the thought habits of uncultivated intellects," wrote the biologist Michael Ghiselin, " -- children, savages and simpletons." Comments such as these had the effect of raw meat dropped carelessly among carnivores. A

Responding to Stephen Fletcher's Views in the Times Literary Supplement on the RNA World

To the Editor The Times Literary Supplement The RNA World Sir: Having with indignation rejected the assumption that the creation of life required an intelligent design, Mr Fletcher has persuaded himself that it has proceeded instead by means of various chemical scenarios. These scenarios all require intelligent intervention. In his animadversions, Mr Fletcher suggests nothing so much as a man disposed to denounce alcohol while sipping sherry. The RNA world to which Mr Fletcher has pledged his allegiance was introduced by Carl Woese, Leslie Orgel and Francis Crick in 1967. Mystified by the appearance in the contemporary cell of a chicken in the form of the nucleic acids, and an egg in the form of the proteins, Woese, Orgel and Crick argued that at some time in the past, the chicken was the

An Open Letter to Donald Prothero

Hey Don -- I want you should do me a favor. I noticed that you put up this real negative review of Steve Meyer's Signature in the Cell on Amazon. I want to tell you, I loved the stuff about the slow fuse and all. It brought back memories of the time Boom Boom Salacio was a Senior Fellow at the DI. The Putznagel Salami Fire? That was Boom Boom. We all miss the Big Guy at the DI. But here's the thing. The moment your review hit the stands, bang! sales of Meyer's book go through the roof. I mean you're taking Boom Boom to a whole new level. So I was thinking that maybe you could give my book a negative review too? Make it a real scorcher and all. It's called The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. I mean, how long did it take to write the Meyer review? Five minutes,

I Told You So

From the introduction to The Deniable Darwin: My own view, repeated in virtually all of my essays, is that the sense of skepticism engendered by the sciences would be far more appropriately directed toward the sciences than toward anything else. It is not a view that has engendered wide-spread approval. The sciences require no criticism, many scientists say, because the sciences comprise a uniquely self-critical institution, with questionable theories and theoreticians passing constantly before stern appellate review. Judgment is unrelenting. And impartial. Individual scientists may make mistakes, but like the Communist Party under Lenin, science is infallible because its judgments are collective. Critics are not only unwelcome, they are unneeded. The biologist Paul Gross has made himself

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The King of Infinite Space: Euclid and His Elements

In this brief, accessible foray, popular math/science writer Berlinski (Newton’s Gift) breathes life into an ancient mathematician and the world of axioms and theorems he created — a geometric world that became the basis for much of modern math, from analytic geometry to the idea of curved space-time. To Berlinski, Euclid’s fourth-century B.C., 13-volume Elements is a manifestation of his “intense demand for an idealized world.” In small, precise steps, Euclid spells out five axioms, or assumptions, about points, lines, and angles, and what it means when two things are “equal” — everything needed to describe shapes in space. Berlinski writes, “In every generation, a few students have found themselves ravished by the Elements”; so too will even the most math-averse

The Devil's Delusion

Militant atheism is on the rise. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have dominated bestseller lists with books denigrating religious belief as dangerous foolishness. And these authors are merely the leading edge of a far larger movement–one that now includes much of the scientific community. “The attack on traditional religious thought,” writes David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion.” A secular Jew, Berlinski nonetheless delivers a biting defense of religious thought. An acclaimed author who has spent his career writing about mathematics

The Dang Thing

John Derbyshire and the movie he hasn't seen.
In an essay published recently on National Review Online, John Derbyshire has declared that the documentary Expelled contains a blood libel against Western Civilization. His is an exercise of striking vulgarity, the more so since, as he insouciantly admits, he has not “seen the dang thing.” A blood libel, one might recall, refers to the charge that the Jewish people are irredeemably stained by their occasional, if modest, need for Christian blood. Some terms have acquired through their historical associations a degree of repugnance that persuades sensitive men and women not to use them. If Derbyshire has been repelled by the smell of blood, it is a revulsion that he has successfully overcome.  Having not seen the documentary that he proposes to criticize,

The Scientific Embrace of Atheism

At sometime after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first entered space, stories began to circulate that he had been given secret instructions by the Politburo. Have a look around, they told him. Suitably instructed, Gagarin looked around. When he returned without having seen the face of God, satisfaction in high circles was considerable. The commissars having vacated the scene, it is the scientific community that has acquired their authority. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Weinberg, Vic Stenger, Sam Harris, and most recently the mathematician John Paulos, have had a look around: They haven’t seen a thing. No one could have seen less. It is curious that so many scientists should have recently embraced atheism. The great physical scientists — Copernicus, Kepler,

Connecting Hitler and Darwin

One man — Charles Darwin — says: “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals…” Another man — Adolf Hitler — says: Let us kill all the Jews of Europe. Is there a connection? Yes obviously is the answer of the historical record and common sense. Published in 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species said nothing of substance about the origin of species. Or anything else, for that matter. It nonetheless persuaded scientists in England, Germany and the United States that human beings were accidents of creation. Where Darwin had seen species struggling for survival, German physicians, biologists, and professors of hygiene saw races. They drew the obvious conclusion, the one that Darwin had already drawn. In the

Inside the Mathematical Mind

When physicists write books for the general public, they write about black holes, dark matter, or strings that wriggle like mad. The universe is their subject. Mathematicians write about mathematics and what it all means. Their subject is their subject. The mathematician David Ruelle is well known for his work on nonlinear dynamics and turbulence, and his new book, “The Mathematician’s Brain” (Princeton University Press, 172 pages, $22.95), is a book about mathematics and what it all means. If the entomologist studies bugs, and the linguist languages, just what is it the mathematician studies? Sets, numbers, equations—that much is clear. Thereafter, everything solid dissolves into thin air. What is a number? Or a set? Or a shape, for that matter? If mathematicians

The Advent of the Algorithm

The 300-Year Journey from an Idea to the Computer
Mathematician David Berlinski, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, explains how the “algorithm” is sure to play a major role in the future of mathematics. An algorithm, Berlinski explains, is essentially a logical, mathematical procedure by which a goal can be accomplished in a finite number of steps.  After recounting the origin of the algorithm within mathematics, Berlinski explains that it is the algorithm which has made possible the physical sciences. Turning his attention to molecular biology, and the genetic code specifically, Berlinski notes that algorithms are required to convert information from one set of symbols, the genetic code, into another set, the proteins. Berlinski believes these strings of information are far richer than analogous strings of

On the Origins of Life

Even as our understanding has advanced dramatically, our explanations of how life emerged on earth continue to rest on yet-to-be-proved…
For those who are studying aspects of the origin of life, the question no longer seems to be whether life could have originated by chemical processes involving non-biological components but, rather, what pathway might have been followed.— National Academy of Sciences (1996) It is 1828, a year that encompassed the death of Shaka, the Zulu king, the passage in the United States of the Tariff of Abominations, and the battle of Las Piedras in South America. It is, as well, the year in which the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler announced the synthesis of urea from cyanic acid and ammonia. Discovered by H.M. Roulle in 1773, urea is the chief constituent of urine. Until 1828, chemists had assumed that urea could be produced only by a living organism. Wöhler provided the most convincing

Copernicus Stages A Comeback

Special to the London Gazette
More than sixty years after the famous Galileo “The Earth it Moves” trial in Rome, Copernicus is in the news again, this time in the form of a so-called theory of universal gravitation (or UG, as it has come to be known). Headquartered at the Royal Society, a think tank in London funded by well-heeled royalist donors, members of the universal gravitation movement argue that the facts of astronomy are so complicated that they require the introduction of a mysterious “universal force of gravitation.” But when queried, members decline to specify the author of this force, saying only (according to a public spokesman) that “In this, we are agnostic.” Unlike the old breed of Copernicists, universal gravitation theorists sport established degrees from

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